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Nocturnal Omissions

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

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It’s either a terrifying nightmare or a titillating fantasy: Every
time you meet someone, connect, and enjoy a night of amorous congress,
you wake up — not even hung-over or dopey from drugs — with
absolutely no idea who the person next to you might be. There are
no emotional souvenirs of the connection you made; your recent past has
been scrubbed clean from your brain. Perhaps the only traces of the event
are the bruises on your inner thighs, the soreness in your belly, the stickiness
between your legs. Maybe you find it sad, this inability to hold onto sex,
to have no grip on one of the only strings that actually ties us to other
people. Maybe it frees you: without memory there can be no responsibility
to the person with whom you just formed a physical bond. Perhaps you’re
just really turned on by the notion of amnesiac sex: the fucking will be
like the first time, every time. Maybe you think this condition would make
a great plot device for some sort of brain-bending futuristic murder mystery.

   And maybe, just maybe, you are as full of shit as all the novelists
and filmmakers who have mined the narrative implications of Sexual Amnesia for
all their worth. Much ink has been spilled over the spate of memory-loss movies
that was sparked
by Memento in
2000,
and continued with everything from The
Bourne Identity,
50 First Dates, Eternal

Sex
is in fact an inherently forgettable experience.

Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even Ellen DeGeneres’
doze-y swimmer Dory in Finding
Nemo.
Is the plot device a commentary on our culture’s short attention
span? On how disconnected we’ve become from
each other? For whatever reason,
it seems that Hollywood has become enraptured with the question
of what life would be like if we didn’t remember our partners and lovers.
And rather than swing by a local Alzheimer’s care facility, they have chosen
to imagine the situation as dramatic, romantic, trippy, horrifying, hilarious,
or hot.

   But in making compelling or attractive points about the loss
of sexual memory, they all miss the point: We don’t need the bells and
whistles of high-art fantasy sequences or Hollywood melodrama to engage in a
fantasy
about forgetting and sensuality — we live that amnesia every day. All of
us remember less about our sex lives than we do about what it feels like to stub
a toe or what we had for dinner last night. It is
an unspoken truth that no matter how much time we spend obsessing
about it, sex — even without the benefit of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay — is
an inherently forgettable experience.

   This summer will see two new additions to the Honey I Forgot
I Slept With You canon. In Ray Loriga’s drug-addled stream-of-consciousness
novel Tokyo
Doesn’t Love Us Anymore
, the salesman protagonist hawks a memory-erasing
chemical but samples too much of the goods himself. Loriga tours the rotting
mind of a sexual omnivore, unbound from any reality or consciousness except for
the persistent shadowy memories he most wants cleared: those of the woman he
loved and lost. Then there’s Novo, a cheerful French movie about
a breathtakingly attractive man who has lost his short-term memory
after a martial
arts accident. He has a wife, he has a mistress at work, he has a girlfriend
who loves him, but he doesn’t know any of this, because he cannot remember
anything. It’s the ultimate male fantasy; the man is always getting laid,
always emotionally available, and never cheats because he has no idea whether
or not he’s in a relationship!

   But put all the fictional possibilities aside. What human sensual
experience is more associated with “not remembering” than
sex? Didn’t we all first learn about the phenomenon of repressed memories from
the 1980s media hullabaloo over children who were molested and then buried
the experience under so much neurological matter that it couldn’t be retrieved
until adulthood?

   And then there are the mundane cliches surrounding the drowsy,
boozy forgetfulness of adult sex lives. One night stands are wiped clean — or
at least streaky — by a strong wallop of alcohol and the headaches that
blind us to anything resembling recollection. How many times have we become immersed
in conversations with friends in bars, grabbed cocktail napkins and tried to
make lists that recalled all the shadowy bodies from our pasts? The number of
people we’ve fucked, number we’ve blown, number we’ve kissed.
The lists can never be completed, and nights later we smack our foreheads with
our palms and mutter, incongruously, to ourselves or whomever we may be with: “Tony.
From Queens.” And those are

If
we lived with the vivid, searing recollections of such moments
we would never copulate again.

just the beginning of the gaps. Because of all those notations scratched onto
the cocktail napkin, how many of them have last names? How many have first names?
We remember the names of babysitters and third-grade teachers with more clarity
than we can recall the names of some of the people with whom we’ve shared our
bed, names that we may well have yelled aloud, with feeling. I have a friend
who
eight
years later is still trying to pin a family name on “Joe from Geneva,” a
sweet boy she dated and slept with for nearly six months in college. He was Italian,
hung like a horse, and once called her from Switzerland while on vacation, earning
him the only moniker that sticks with her to this day.

   Then there are the sexual memories we try to forget, the ones
that come with shame. And this aspect of amnesia, I think, is evolutionarily
sound. We banish memories of the ways we make asses of ourselves in front of
the people who see us naked and touch our bodies and hear us at our most unguarded
because if we lived with the vivid, searing recollections of such moments, we
would never copulate again. It hurts my brain to even begin to probe the moments
I’ve spent years shooing from my mind: the day I invited an ex who had
dumped me to my apartment on Super Bowl Sunday and told him every one of my
sexual secrets and insecurities. He nodded unhappily, trying to catch what he
could of the game over my bawling. I barely remember that my plan at the
time was to bind him to me more tightly, show him my real self, open up to him
in a way that would make him realize how much he cared. I now know that I was
simply ensuring that I would never watch post-season football again.

   The loss of my virginity — to a large football player
against my will in my freshman year of college — has also been
expunged. I remember enough now to tell the story, to list it here
as something that once happened to me. But I recall it only as the verbal frame
on which I have hung the tale for many years. I needed to remove the memory of
what it felt like physically — the pain and fear and repulsion — if
I ever wanted to learn how to have healthy sex again. Funnily enough, my body
had a cooperative reaction. That night’s intrusion should have
thoroughly done away with my hymen, but with several sexual partners afterward,
I
experienced
pain at each initial intercourse. It’s as though my body so wanted to forget
how it was violated that it simply sealed itself up again, as though nothing
had
happened.

   It’s the willingness of the body to reabsorb the physical
sensation of sex that is the most compelling of our amnesiac tendencies. In fact,
we forget sex — the act of it, the physical feeling of it, the logistical
realness of it — every single time we have it. We can remember positions
or dirty words or hair pulling or the face he made when he came. But after sex,
those become images and sound bites that can rarely be sustained in any sort
of drawn-out form. For twenty-four hours after a session, the details of what
transpired can shimmer in our heads,
sending currents of recalled warmth to our bellies and below, but the details
melt away like a dream does. We’re not experiencing the sensation of actual
recall, just the lifeless recitation of a mental note we made for ourselves when
the images were still vivid.

   It’s true: try to remember what it actually physically feels
like to have sex, right now. It’s nearly impossible. Sex, like childbirth,
is a physical sensation immediately reclaimed by the body as soon as it is completed,

We’ll
have to keep having sex, just to be able to remember exactly what
it feels like.

though perhaps for the opposite reason. If indeed we forget the pain of childbirth
so that we can be coerced into pushing another human being out of us again someday,
then surely the sensations of arousal and sexual union are taken back by the
body to be used as a carrot. There’s no chance we can survive on memories alone.
So we’ll have to keep having sex, just to be able to remember exactly what
it feels like.

   Movies and books that explore the ramifications of sexual memory
loss are only exacerbating our daily realities. Of course, the brain-washing
scientists of Eternal
Sunshine
, or the chemical salesman in Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore are
trying to do away with not just the memories, but the pain. And that has its
appeal. For, no matter how self-editing our noggins and libidos are, we are still
capable
of self-punishing nostalgia. But those kinds of memories — taking
food from his plate at brunch, looking at an apartment together and thinking
you might have found your home, spotting him leaning against a fence
with a cigarette in his mouth and thinking “this one is going to be trouble” — are
not about sex. They are about love and affection, and are scraps of a story
you have already told yourself and others.

   I don’t need any movie to tell me that my inability to
play back the details of my past physical relationships, while sometimes
convenient, is also frustrating as fuck. I love my personal dramas — the
dialogue and narrative twists that go with every period of wooing. I can pore
over every word for weeks and months,
waiting patiently for the clue that will reveal his desires. No verbal tick,
no sartorial
choice, goes unanalyzed and uninterpreted if I am on the prowl.

   But jump to the moment of actual sexual union, and my recording
devices go haywire. What was that thing he said when his hand grazed my shoulder
blade? I know it made me wet; I remember thinking ‘"I just got wet."
But
what did he say? How can I not remember, when I could make a perfectly accurate
chart depicting his daily choice in footwear for the past six weeks? How was
it that the way he touched my arm was different from how he touched my arm the
day before? I couldn’t possibly say; I don’t recall, exactly. It’s
this safeguard on our sexual recollections that leave us with such boring descriptors
as “It was good!” or “It was so-so.” These are the disappointing sentences with
which I reward friends who have been subjected to the dull details about verbal
flirtation for weeks. But I simply cannot say more about how the sex was. It’s
as though the quickening of the pulse triggers the dilation in the holes in memory’s
sieve. I simply cannot remember. 

©2004

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